Symphonies 6 & 8
Vienna Philharmonic, Myung-Whun
DG 469 046-2, 76 minutes,
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Even today Dvorak's symphonies are not all that well known - apart from the
ubiquitous Ninth. Myung-Whun Chung has already recorded the 3rd and 7th
symphonies (also with the Vienna Philharmonic) in a proposed complete cycle
for Deutsche Grammophon, its first since the famous Kubelik set. This second
release is in every way equal to the first and by itself stands as a very
fine single recommendation for these two symphonies.
The opening of the Sixth recalls very closely the lyrical second symphony
of Brahms. But the D major (in what was originally Dvorak's First Symphony)
also shows a composer at the height of his creative power. Like Brahms, Dvorak
took his time composing his very first symphony and it comes across as a
work of considerable mastery and freedom. Its scale is surprisingly large
(just under 40 minutes), but its overbearing sound is of restrained nobility.
The Sixth is rich with ideas: the second subject has two memorable themes,
and the development, on long sustained chords emerging from the basses, is
hugely impressive. The second movement, recalling that of Beethoven's C minor
symphony, is gently contemplative with only a single stormy passage to disturb
its development. The scherzo (marked Furiant) has the familiar Dvorak
motif of hunting music, inspired partly by the folk idiom which is so important
to his music. The trio, particularly in this recording, is masterly - listen
to the gorgeous phrasing of the piccolo, and the long-drawn phrasing of the
Vienna strings. The finale is a magnificent movement: heavenly woodwind phrasing,
a presto coda and rapid changes of tempo and pace which give the movement
considerable excitement. The violin phrasing, particularly the descending
string passages, are highly dramatic and beautifully played by the Vienna
Philharmonic. Memories of the end of Brahms' own Second Symphony are not
exactly banished - there is even a small brass chorale at 9'13 towards 9'33.
The Eighth is, as Bernard Shaw notoriously remarked, 'very nearly up to the
level of a Rossini overture, and would make excellent promenade music at
the summer fêtes'. The comment is perhaps too extreme to be taken
seriously, but it does highlight the complex emotions this work generates.
It is probably the most pastoral of all his mature works, but it also appears,
on the surface at least, to lack musical substance. There is very little
sense of emerging themes, just a juxtaposing of ideas that remain, by and
large, undeveloped. There is still the Slavic folk element, but it is perhaps
not as self evident.
Myung-Whun Chung actually keeps the tempo quite fluid (a problem for interpreters
of this work, even very famous ones) and gives the work an expressivo
quality which is exactly right for its mood. The second movement has evocative
woodwind phrasing and beautiful, cantabile string playing. The glowing and
lyrical string passage in the Trio of the Scherzo is delicious indeed, with
the Vienna strings burnished and bright.
These are enormously empathetic readings - wonderfully played and beautifully
recorded. The surprise must surely be that Chung, a conductor who does not
have this music in his blood, is so obviously able to enter the sound world
of Dvorak so convincingly. I look forward to more Dvorak from him, and perhaps
some Brahms, in the near future.